SALT LAKE CITY — In the future, if you need a new heart, scientists may be able to simply make one. Scientists in Israel have 3D-printed an artificial heart using human cells, according to research published Monday in the journal Advanced Science.
"This is the first time anyone anywhere has successfully engineered and printed an entire heart replete with cells, blood vessels, ventricles and chambers," Professor Tal Dvir of Tel Aviv University's School of Molecular Cell Biology and Biotechnology said in a statement published by CNN.
Already, scientists have used 3D bio-printing to make corneas, ears and bladders, in addition to other tissues and biological structures. But scientists were previously only able to print simple tissues without blood vessels, according to CNN.
Market Research Future predicts the 3D bio-printing market will be worth more than $1.9 billion by 2023.
Outside the medical field, 3D printing has been used to create everything from cars to food, and has opened up possibilities in numerous industries. The technology has also provoked controversy in terms of how it should be regulated, especially regarding homemade 3D-printed guns.
3D-printed organs are no different.
Two years ago, the Israeli Health Ministry established a committee to examine the wider implications of the medical use of 3D printers, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
“There’s a tendency to believe we can solve many problems by using these printers, which is not always true,” one of the committee members Prof. Samer Srouji from the Galilee Medical Center, Nahariya told Haaretz. “There were also cases that ended up with complications, causing infection and harm to the patient. This area requires regulation, with protocols and clear guidelines in place,” he added.
It will still be quite some time before 3D-printed hearts like the one made by researchers at Tel Aviv University can be used for actual transplants, according to Dr. Max Gomez of CBS New York.
The newly unveiled artificial heart is made from human cells, but is roughly the size of a rabbit's heart, or a cherry. In addition, Dvir told Bloomberg the printed heart will need another month before cells are mature enough to beat and contract. Tests on animals would be required before the technology can be tried in humans, he added.
Dvir predicted, "Maybe, in 10 years, there will be organ printers in the finest hospitals around the world, and these procedures will be conducted routinely," according to the Times of Israel.
In the meantime, cardiovascular diseases are the No. 1 cause of death in industrialized nations, according to the World Health Organization.
"To date, heart transplantation is the only treatment for patients with end‐stage heart failure. Since the number of cardiac donors is limited, there is a need to develop new approaches to regenerate the infarcted heart," the study reads.
In addition to being used for transplants, 3D-printed hearts could be used for more accurate, even patient-specific, drug testing, according to the study.
All of the different cell types in the new heart, which include not just heart cells but blood vessels and supporting structures, came from a single human donor.
"That's important because it prevents the possibility of rejection," Dr. Anthony Atala of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine told CBS.
To create the heart, the researchers first performed a biopsy of the donor’s fatty tissue, which was then separated into cellular and acellular material. The cellular material was reprogrammed to turn into stem cells, and the extracellular material was processed and mixed back with the stem cells to became the "ink" for the 3D printer, according to the study.
The process for regulating artificial organs is unclear.
"Health systems in Western countries, including Israel, still don’t know how to deal with this new technology, or how to incorporate it into the medical world from a regulatory perspective," Haaretz reported. "The field is currently wide-open and any developer or company is allowed to make 3D printers and incorporate them into various medical procedures."
While scientists around the world are expressing excitement about medical breakthroughs with 3D-printing, some are also concerned.
“We can talk about several issues in this regard,” Gil Siegal, director of the Center for Health Law and Bioethics at Ono Academic College, Kiryat Ono, and a professor at the University of Virginia, told the Israeli newspaper.6 comments on this story
“For example, replacing or renewing organs will affect the life expectancy of patients. This raises issues of resources and priorities, the retirement age and the planet’s resources," he said.
"Other issues revolve around the question of what a human being is and what the boundaries are of being human. Is a person who has 90 percent of his organs made by a printer still considered a human being? Does a person with upgraded, printed organs with improved capabilities still qualify as human?"
"These questions will only become more important as the area advances and develops,” Siegal added.